Wednesday, August 31, 2011

SAINT CLOACINA: Small Town Sewer and Water

The goddess “Cloacina,” an ancient Etruscan and then Roman figure, might be the necessary patron saint for small Montana towns struggling with water and sewer problems.  Fishermen and biologists might know that sub-mammal creatures have an organ of evacuation that mixes all that tricky stuff between the legs (urine, feces and sex) into one organ.  Our social taboo on such subjects does not help us think about them.  Small town infrastructure is not sexy, but it certainly has a lot to with the handling of water and sewer, two functions that are kept separate not only as networks of piping but also as “businesses” -- money in, functions out -- included in the town government.  It’s a temptation to shift and mix money.
Monday’s Valier meeting for the purpose of raising rates on sewer and water was held at 5:30pm last Monday. Surely you’ve never heard of a meeting that would LOWER rates and surely you didn’t imagine that in the end the rates wouldn’t have to be raised.  Few people appeared at the meeting, NO representatives of local businesses, schools or churches, but a set of big handsome strong Valier men in the prime of life from DeVoe’s construction business.  They had never attended before.
The three most crucial economic forces in Valier are sort of invisible, taken for granted.    DeVoe Construction, the Canal Company and the CHS grain elevators are so basic that few people think about them.  If DeVoe were to leave (parts are already in Kalispell), the population of the town (now 311 or so) would drop, maybe by as many as fifty people or more, which would deeply affect everyone else.  These employees are young with families, so the loss would hit the school hard.  
If the Canal Company somehow failed, which is unthinkable but not impossible, every irrigation farmer would be out of business.  The population of the town might not drop directly, but indirectly the business loss would be devastating.  (And yet the first impulse of newcomers is to cut off the supply of potable water to farmers who fill their household tanks from the town’s water supply.)  The town thinks of the lake as a source of recreation business, but in fact it is the impoundment for the water for the canal system that sustains ag in the area.  If the Canal Company were no longer operating the dams and canals, the lake would revert to being the hay meadow it once was.  The retirement population that is here to enjoy fishing would have no reason to stay.
The third primary business is two elevator complexes and related subsidiaries owned by CHS which has headquarters in St. Paul.  BNSF owns the railroad spur that serves it, but leases the Valier section to CHS.  I don’t know who owns the grain bin “farms” -- there are several -- but grain is the keystone of this whole region.  In spite of being everywhere and seeming eternal, it is in fact quite vulnerable to government subsidy policy, world weather, mono-genetic risk, and disease.  That's not mentioning fuel and ag chemicals.  Some say that the force that really emptied the small towns was simply CRP, the program that put much land into fallow: that is, farmers were paid NOT to grow crops.  Many sold their buildings and equipment -- and moved to a gentler climate.  In fact, changing weather may at least force change in crop management.  For instance, planting in fall if constant late wet springs make spring planting problematic.
A town is a kind of body with people coming in and people going out.  Some of us watch the number of “for sale” signs which seem to reflect morale more than economy.  In good years vacant lots are for sale.  In really bad years the real estate company signs are not local, as people look farther for sales. 
One could describe the economy of this small town in terms of tiers, excluding the school and law enforcement or the gas, electricity, and telephone/internet infrastructure people.  (The prices of all these systems are going up.)  We do have a bank and post office, which so far has not been put on the cut list.  I’m told that -- counting ranches -- there are about 85 businesses based in Valier.  This is where tourism counts.
Many local businesses are ranches or ranch-related or located on ranches, including many livestock related operations; for instance a veterinarian, a feed lot, grain cleaning and a pelletizing plant.  The aerial crop sprayer, So-Lo Air, was recently moved out of town to a ranch.  Some of the small businesses in town are run by wives of ranchers and farmers.  
A quick list of “second tier” town businesses include:  Twilite Cowgirl; Christiaens Meats (and custom butchers -- they go out to the ranches to work on-site); Pony Expressions, Holden Real Estate, Medicine River Trading Company (which is also a website business); Curry’s groceries; the Cenex gas station and One-stop;  the old Mike’s Place service station across the street (4-U Collision Center); the Valier clinic which houses three businesses: Marias Health Care, HiLine Chiropractic Center, and Mary Woldstad LCPC; McFarland Counseling; Fitz Repair and Machining (he rebuilds motors); Jessie’s Cut and Curl; Charlene’s Cut ‘n Style; there used to be a tanning bed business; three eating establishments, the Panther Cafe, Froggies, and the quite elegant LighthouseBen Taylor is at three locations, a shop, a pumping station for fuel, and a store; two places to stay, Mountain Front Lodge and the Bed and Breakfast in The Stone Schoolhouse; the Country Haven Greenhouse; Sage Electric; the Valierian.  DeVoe hardware store is separate from the construction company; Sullivan’s excavating and car wash.  The trash roll-off and cemetery probably don’t count as businesses, but they do employ people.  And one of the little internal “businesses” of the town is the campground on the lakeshore.  The airport belongs to the county and is used by Homeland Security among others.
As a third tier there are people in homes making jewelry, writing, editing, painting, giving singing lessons, and probably quietly doing a lot of other things online.  We’re home for border-related law enforcement (some are single men, others have families) and the sort of temporary crews who work on projects like the watertower or the wind farm.
The folks at the meeting tended to see everything through their own lens, for instance, the DeVoe’s Builders Service employees thought that probably the answer would be more housing development, with the idea that if there were more homeowners to share the cost of the infrastructure, rates would be lower.  But that would force expansion of the already overloaded sewage lagoon, just as we’ve had to add a second watertower.
A consultant, Tod Kasten, was present from “Midwest Assistance Program,” a non-profit.  I assume that does not mean he is non-salaried.  He was supposed to report on his conclusion, after reviewing the books, that our sewage program is non-sustaining, though the water is paying for itself now that the meters have been installed.  Much of the problem seems to be debt from rebuilding sewer line and small unpredicted costs of grants and loans.
The three things I could see as problematic is -- first -- our sewage lagoon water sanitizing system which somehow doesn’t work in our climate, though no one pointed that out ahead of time when it was sold to us.  (Certainly not by the salesmen!)  Second is the constant regulatory pressure of forced testing of effluent water under threat of fines from the state level or maybe the federal level.  The requirements go up and up, demanding more time, effort and money all the time.  It now takes all day Wednesday for Leo to monitor the water and take samples.  There are automatic machines that will do this.  ($10,000.  Guess who was probably pressing behind the scenes for more rigorous testing?)  
The third thing is long-standing failure to do long-term planning years ago.  This town is a hundred years past the original laying of infrastructure and has been simply ignoring the idea that towns have life cycles.  In this, we are sharing with the rest of the country, so that the original investments of founding must now be done all over again in terms of rebuilding infrastructure.  Where is the capital for that, let alone the will to do it?  I’ll try to develop some thoughts on this later.  In the meantime, lighting a candle to Saint Cloacina couldn’t hurt.

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